That the church is the "body of Christ" is more than simply a figure of speech. The church is the chief means by which Christ works today; it is an extension of him. We all have a physical body; that's where Paul begins his teaching. "Just as the body is one and yet has many members," he says, "so also is Christ." In other, it is not only the church that is the body of Christ; the church and Christ together constitute the body of Christ.
When you stand in front of a mirror and look at your body, you'll notice that it is divided into two major sections: the head and the torso. The head is the control center of the body. The torso is both the largest part and the part to which the membersarms, legs, and handsare attached. The human body, examined this way, will help us understand how the church is to function.
We are part of Christ. What an amazing statement! We constitute the means by which he functions in the world. The church is a body with many members, and yet it's only one body. It's not many bodies, many denominations. They're all connected by sharing the same life, and they're connected to the head so that they function as his means of expressing his life in this world.
How do we become part of the body?
We weren't born into Christ's body as infants. Paul's explains, "For by one Spirit, we were all baptized into one body." It was through the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which was predicted by John the Baptist and Jesus and fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost that the church was created. It is through faith in Christ, who baptizes us in the Holy Spirit, that we become part of the living Christ. When somebody asks you, "Have you been baptized by the Holy Spirit?" the answer for every Christian is yes.
Then Paul says: It doesn't make any difference what your ethnic or social origin is. There are no divisions among within the body. It is made up of Jews and Greeks, bondsmen and slaves. Everyone is baptized by the same Spirit into one body. Jesus put that in a beautiful little formula: "You in me, and I in you." When the Spirit baptizes us into the body of Christ, he puts us into Christ, and we live in his power. In other words, the church is not simply a group of religious people who gather to enjoy certain mutually desired events. Rather, the church is a group of people who share the same life, who belong to the same Lord, who are filled with the same Spirit, who are given gifts by that Spirit, and who are intended to function together to change the world by the power of God.
The apostle explains in the next few verses just how the church functions. In doing so, he addresses two attitudes that often trouble the church.
We cannot consider ourselves insignificant.
Many people in many churches have thought to themselves, I love to coming to church, but I can't contribute, because I don't have any abilities. Others are so much more talented or knowledgeable than I am."
Paul addresses this feeling of insignificance when he says, "If the foot should say, 'Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,' that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the ear should say, 'Because I'm not an eye, I do not belong to the body,' that would not make it any less a part of the body." In other words, if the foot should say, "I can't do all the things a hand does. It's so flexible, and it's used all the time. I really don't belong in this body," it is nevertheless an indispensable part of the body.
In the same way, if you are a believer and you think you are insignificant just because you can't preach or lead worship, you are deceiving yourself. Whether you feel qualified or not, you're still a part of the body. But you have shut your eyes to truth. You need to open them to see the role God has called you to play. There are no insignificant members of the body.
The reason so many people consider themselves insignificant is that we often have the wrong idea of what the work of the church is. It is widely believed today that the reason the church exists is to gather for great services on Sunday mornings. People who lead services have the necessary gifts; the rest of the congregation looks on and thinks, That's the work of the church, and I can't do any of those things. Therefore, I have no part to play in the church.
The Sunday morning service is not the extent of the church's purpose. The work of the church is to heal the brokenhearted, to deliver the captives, to open the eyes of the blind, and to preach the good news to the poor and despairing. The work of the church is to encourage and strengthen and deliver. And that work doesn't take place inside the church building; it goes on out in the world. What happens inside the church building is just part of the training program. We come here to be equipped to fulfill the work of the church out there.
There is a role for every single member, without exception. Paul says, "If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? And if the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell?" What a ridiculous body it would be if every part did the same thing! What if your girlfriend was nothing but one large eye? Imagine you took her out for a milkshake, propped her up in the booth opposite you, and tried to carry on a conversation while all she could do was stare at you with this one, big, unblinking eye. Creepy, huh? Similarly, if the work of the church consisted only of Sunday morning, it would be as though you had a body that performed only one function.
There are many jobs to be done in the work of the church. Some are to be done on Sunday morning, but the majority of the work is to be done right where you live. That's where the work of the church goes on. We need to recapture the glorious excitement of Jesus Christ, walking through this hurt world, his healing hand touching the blind eyes and lame legs and infirm bodies and destroyed lives all around him. That's the work of the church; the church is Christ at work in the world. Doing this work requires everyone doing the job they are called to do.
We cannot consider ourselves independent.
Paul says, "The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I have no need of you;' nor, again, the head to the feet, 'I have no need of you.'" It's amazing how many people believe they don't need the rest of the body. They are confident in their own abilities and their own ministries. This attitude of independence always creates a sense of rivalry.
I once spoke at a conference for professional golfers. During one session, I was struck by the fact that golfers are, by nature, independent. A golf tournament is a struggle of independent egos against one another. It's very different from a football game, in which each member plays his own role, working together with the rest of the team to accomplish a goal. I'm afraid many congregations are more like golfers; everybody goes out on his or her own and pays little attention to what others are doing.
Paul points out that this attitude leaves the church in a terrible state. What if the eye said, "I don't need the rest of the body; I'll just roll around seeing things and let the rest of the body go"? If that happened, the rest of the body would stumble into everything and the eye would lose its ability to see. We all need one another, no matter how impressive we think we are. For as Paul reminds us that in our physical body the parts that seem to be weaker are actually indispensable.
One morning after my sermon, a doctor told me something I'll never forget. He said, "You may be interested to know there's a part of your body that is absolutely essential to you as a preacher. You probably don't realize it when you're preaching, but without it, you couldn't do what you do."
"What is it?" I asked.
"It's your big toe," he replied. "The big toe senses when your body begins to lean or shift or get out of balance, and it immediately strengthens so that you can stand up and speak. Without your big toe, you could never preach."
I've been guarding my big toe very carefully since then. Don't step on my feet! That's an essential part of my ministry.
There are people in the church who are just as essential to its work as the big toe is to preaching, and they are equally disregarded. Take people with the gift of helps, for example. We think they are nice to have around. Food needs to be served. Chairs need to be set up. They see a need and meet it. We're glad they help out, but do we really appreciate how crucial their service is to the work of the church? Without those folks, we'd soon be unable to preach or teach. We'd stumble over one another and nothing would get done.
Furthermore, Paul says: Those parts of the body we think less honorable we invest with greater honor, and our un-presentable parts are treated with greater modesty. I'm sure Paul's referring to what we used to call our "private parts." Paul simply draws the analogy in the body of Christ and says there are hidden, secret functions within the body that are never mentioned in public but are nevertheless exceedingly important. Take the ministry of prayer. There are people who regularly and consistently pray for others, yet nobody knows about them. There's a woman in this congregation who spends hours each day praying for the staff and members of this church. You seldom see her at meetings because she has difficulty getting out. But how she upholds us in prayer!
When you begin to see the church as God sees it, you'll see that God works the whole body together in one beautifully articulated and coordinated thing. The human body is the most beautifully balanced and delicately tuned instrument the world has ever seen. In the same way, there's nothing more beautiful or effective, nothing more exquisitely balanced, than the church of Jesus Christ. God has crafted it with care. Therefore we ought to show great care for one another.
Paul says, "If one member suffers, all suffer with it." It's also true that "If one be honored, all are honored with him." So the responsibility for the reputation of the body rests with every one of us. How we act is going to govern how other people see the body of Christ at work in the world today. That ought to take care of the problem of independence.
The closing paragraph of 1 Corinthians 12 is a beautiful portrait of the divine stamp upon the church: "Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it." The church is marked by a remarkable unity and diversity. "And God has appointed in the church first, apostles; second, prophets; third, teachers." This is not in order of rank, but in order of appearance in chronological order. First there came the apostles, who were followed by the prophets and teachers. All that diversity was necessary, Paul says, to the functioning of the church and its work in the world.
"Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?" The answer, obviously, is no. No one has all the gifts. No one can do all the work of the church. We need each other. Not only that, but these gifts grew into offices. Notice how that which is listed as a gift in the beginning of the chapter has now become an office in the church at the end of the chapter. Instead of having gifts of healing, we speak of healers. Instead of gifts of administration, we speak of administrators.
Paul concludes by exhorting the church to "earnestly desire the highest gifts." He is addressing a congregation, not individuals. Our gifts are chosen by the Holy Spirit; no matter which gifts we want, the Holy Spirit chooses for us. But as a congregation, we can earnestly desire that the higher gifts be manifested among us. In this way we will be better equipped, working together by the power of the Holy Spirit, to continue to do Christ's work in the world.
For the outline of this sermon, go to "Body Life."
The late Ray Stedman was pastor of Peninsula Bible Church in Palo Alto, California, and author of several books including For Such a Time as This (Discovery House).